Tony Thompson, sheriff for Black Hawk County in Iowa, told the New York Times that Tyson’s disregard for workers in its Waterloo, Iowa pork plant “shook me to the core.” Thompson asked the Times reporter:
“Which is more important? Your pork chops, or the people that are contracting Covid, the people that are dying from it?”
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed what has always been true of the meat industry controlled by Cargill, JBS, Tyson and Smithfield: Profits are earned at the expense of slaughterhouse and farm workers’ safety, farmers’ ability to earn a decent living, animals’ rights to basic welfare, eaters’ health and everyone’s need for clean water and a stable climate.
The pandemic has also revealed another truth: As more people cook at home and seek out more local, regenerative, organic food—including grass-fed and pasture-raised meat—it’s clear that another food system is possible.
TAKE ACTION: Tell Congress: No more COVID-19-contaminated factory farm slaughterhouses! Support local processing plants for organic pasture-based farmers and butchers.
The COVID-19 global pandemic is exposing just how insecure our global food supply chain is, and how real food security is tied to having strong local and regional food systems.
The United Nations predicts that about 265 million people will face acute food insecurity by the end of this year, a doubling of the 130 million estimated to suffer severe food shortages last year.
With more than 50 million Americans expected to need food assistance, this is no time to allow milk to be dumped, vegetables to rot, or animals to be slaughtered but not brought to market.
But the solution to a looming hunger crisis can’t be to allow workers to be sent to their deaths in massive food processing facilities like the meatpacking plants that rival nursing homes and jails for the country’s worst COVID-19 disaster zones.
As of May 11, at least 194 meatpacking and processed food plants and four farms have confirmed cases of COVID-19. At least 13,774 workers (12,608 meatpacking workers, 936 food processing workers, and 230 farmworkers) have tested positive, and at least 54 workers (49 meatpacking workers and 5 food processing workers) have died.
Among food safety inspectors, 197 field employees in the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are absent from work after testing positive for coronavirus, and 120 FSIS employees are under self-quarantine due to contact with or exposure to COVID-19 (as of May 5). Three food safety inspectors have died.
The only way to protect public health in the short term is to immediately close all slaughterhouses with a coronavirus presence.
In the long term, we need to shut down the entire Big Meat industry—to protect public health, the environment, workers (who could transition to better jobs under the Green New Deal) and to end the industry’s horrific treatment of animals.
The trillions of dollars that Congress is pumping into the economy to save it from a pandemic-induced disaster should go to creating long-term solutions to the problems revealed by the pandemic, not to prop up failing systems.
Congress should earmark coronavirus relief funds to replace COVID-19-contaminated factory-farm slaughterhouses with a more resilient network of pasture-based regenerative organic farms and local butchers.
A good first step is the legislation (H.R. 6682) introduced by Reps. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) that waives matching fund requirements for agriculture businesses who receive funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program and Value Added Producer Grants.
H.R. 6682 could accelerate the construction of hundreds of new smaller-scale USDA-inspected abattoires to serve local communities and the grass-fed and pasture-based producers that consumers want, especially now.
This legislation could help more farms do what White Oak Pastures has done in Georgia, with its on-farm abattoirs.
And what a community of farmers, including regenerative agriculture hero Gabe Brown, has done in North Dakota with the Bowdon Meat Processing Cooperative.
Concentrating meat processing in a few massive slaughterhouses is a recipe for disaster, fostering the spread of disease among workers and the spread of foodborne illness throughout the food supply.
It’s time to start building alternatives.